"I feel better the longer I'm alive," says twelve-string guitar sorcerer Leo Kottke. "I think I was at my most unconscious in my late teens, early twenties. I was completely off. As a result, I didn't think I felt bad--because I didn't feel anything. And after that, when I started to wake up, I was purely miserable. Little by little, though, I think the fog kind of clears. I'm not sure what goes on, but it seems to be universal. You just come to terms with life. And when you do, it's very nice. That may be what humility is all about."
He should know. After all, Kottke's career, which recently entered its second quarter-century, has been simple and unassuming from its outset. His debut album, 12 String Blues, was released on a small Minneapolis label in the late Sixties, but while it was an impressive example of guitar mastery, it didn't set the world on fire. As a result, Kottke appeared doomed to a life hustling his own self-produced work--until, that is, he hooked up with every acoustic guitarist's mentor, John Fahey. What followed was 1969's 6 and 12 String Guitar (released on Fahey's Takoma label), the second in what would become an odd series of uncategorizable, eclectic, beautiful recordings. Kottke's most recent disc, the memorable Peculiaroso--his sixth on the Private Music imprint--is yet another showcase for virtuoso technique that continues to inspire young players such as Michael Hedges and Richard Gilewitz.
The next Kottke offering will sound familiar to those who attend his Boulder performances this week: The concerts will be recorded for inclusion on a forthcoming live CD. "It will be solo--although if I stumble across one of my friends, we might throw something out there to see if it's any good," he elaborates. "Lyle Lovett was going to come in, but he's going to be in Canada at that time. But that's okay, because my next studio record will be duets with practically everybody I can extort an appearance from. I've been meaning to do a duet album for a long time, even though I know everybody does it. It's a pretty hackneyed approach in terms of marketing, but it could be fun."
Live albums aren't exactly a new species, either, but Kottke's should include something that's unique to him--his peculiar brand of improvised, between-song banter. It's a tack that took a while to develop. "When I started out, I didn't talk at all," he says. "For about three years I barely looked up--and it worked. Then one night I was messing with a couple of goosenecked microphone stands that wouldn't behave, and before I even thought about it, I asked the audience if anyone had ever killed a chicken. Because it reminded me of this attempt I had made to do that in Oklahoma once. And they laughed--and I laughed, because I hadn't thought of that since I was a child. I really was amusing myself as much as them. After that, I got so much out of it that I just kept doing it. It also sheds the right kind of light on what I'm playing. It amplifies the songs a little bit. I think most listeners, when they hear instrumental music, need a context for it. It's difficult for a lot of people to hear music without words. This is one way to give them the context.
"It helps me in other ways, too," he goes on. "It makes it possible to see where the next tune is coming from and what it should be--well, not what it should be, but what it will be. You can see it coming. The curve of the set--beginning, middle and end--builds itself. So every night, excluding the nights when you're just awful, is complete in a way."
Of course, not every number Kottke plays is sans lyrics. He's been singing on and off since the Sixties, in a style that he described on the liner notes of 6 and 12 String Guitar as sounding like "geese farts on a muggy day." Kottke still hasn't managed to live down that turn of phrase, even though his delivery has changed with age. As he nears fifty, he offers an amended characterization of his voice.
"Now I would call it plain," he says. "And I like that. I like singers who have plain voices. It has something to do with how they treat vibrato and how they phrase. At any rate, I like it now. I had different plans for it when I didn't like it, but they don't apply anymore."
What were those plans? "I was going to sing" he explains. "At least I was trying to, but it just wasn't the right way for me to approach it. It may not be the right way for anybody who is a baritone. Because it's hard for me to listen to a baritone actually sing without it sounding a little too inflated and profundo. A tenor can get away with a lot of singing, because a tenor voice rings so. But it's harder to take with a lower voice. So I think you have to be less sentimental and less of a vocalizer. To just sort of say the sentence."
A lot of sentences have been coursing through Kottke's mind of late, thanks to his renewed interest in penning fiction. "I write a lot," he reveals. "I've been working on short stories--I have a handful of them. And I've gotten better at it lately. I tend to be a little too literary when I write, but I finally started getting that out of there, and it makes a difference."
At present, Kottke's efforts are not scheduled to arrive at a bookstore near you. He sent a pair of tales to an editor at Doubleday who gave him good feedback, but before she could do anything with them, Kottke says, "she quit. Which is probably good, because maybe a couple of stories is all I've got in me." He adds, "The difficulty is that writing fiction or nonfiction comes from the same place as songwriting and guitar writing. So when you do one, you're not doing the other. It kind of shunts your whole train off to one or the other. I haven't written anything on my guitar in several months now, because I've been spending all my time with these few ideas I've got for characters I'm dealing with. So it's a little suicidal for me to write fiction, but I love to do it. I think words are really their own kind of music."
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Not that Kottke has any plans to give up on his guitar. He insists that he still enjoys playing--and notes that whenever that enjoyment begins to ebb, he thinks about a piece of advice that was given to him a long time ago.
"I was in Kansas City one year, and I was having a terrible week," he remembers. "Anyhow, the supporting act turned out to be a guy who was ninety years old who they'd gotten out of the nursing home to open for me. He was seven feet tall; he had on a robin's-egg-blue leisure suit and a white plastic belt and white plastic shoes and this little, funny white hat. He played the ukulele--and he was horrible. He went out on stage and just kind of tottered around up there in the clouds, and he was terrible. But the audience adored him. I tell you, it was really hard to follow this guy. So later, I asked him, `Why do you do this?' And he just looked at me like I was nuts and said, `This is what I do!'
"Boy, that shut me up, and it made the whole night for me. Nowadays, whenever I have a bad week or wonder why I'm doing it, I remember him. It was good news. I'm really glad he told me that."
Leo Kottke, 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday, April 16 and 17, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $10.50, 447-0095 or 290-